Posts Tagged trauma

New Year’s Resolution: Take the Time to Restore Kids’ Lives

Published by — Do we leave problems to fester, or do we put in the effort, unpack the problem and come up with answers?


A few years ago a kid we’ll call Leon transferred from a big urban district to the small, even poorer district where I consult on restorative practices.  As a 7th grader, Leon was small for his age and scrappy.  When not disrupting class or wandering the halls, his head was firmly on the desk.  He did zero work.  By December he was no longer a mere “frequent flier,” but the number one champ of discipline referrals.

Such kids drive dedicated urban teachers to cruise job postings in suburban towns and to demand “alternative placements” for unwanted kids.  But no one learns community-appropriate behavior when segregated in a behavior-disorder classroom, a residential facility, or a prison.  But what to do?  The choice seems to be either wrecking that kid’s life by kicking him out or wrecking the learning environment of the other kids — never mind driving the teachers nuts.

But this middle school’s bold principal stepped into the fray.  A committed, experienced Restorative Practioner (RP) herself, she had established a restorative-practices implementation team to work on climate-and-culture issues.  While Response to Intervention (RTI) and special education teams address the needs of individual kids one at a time, an RP team supports the health of the school community as a whole.

Ideally, the team creates restorative solutions to prevent anticipated problems like tardiness or class-cutting.  But sometimes the “frequent fliers” consume so much community attention that they need concentrated help as a group.  So, the principal asked the RP team to assemble all possible information on each high-maintenance child.

The team member assigned to Leon knew his mother was hard to reach.

Mom works, and was royally sick of getting calls from the school.  Still, the team needed to know what he was like at home.  Might there be a relative, a neighbor, or family friend who could help Mom?  Does the family have any social services already in place?  If so, what?  Did Leon’s teachers have any theories as to what might be up with him?  And lo: one teacher suggested he might need glasses.  Ultimately, that piece of intel was the key that unlocked the mystery.

But getting anything done beyond the school walls is way easier said than done.  Some enterprising school nurses might have personal relationships with outside providers, but schools don’t have optometrists on call.  They refer such matters to the parents, hoping they have insurance, willingness and capacity to pursue the issue.  If not, though, good luck navigating the hurdles presented by public-service bureaucracies and insurance companies.  It’s not really the school’s job.  But in collaboration with a local private social-services organization, the RP team helped Mom sign up for a program that could arrange an eye test.

Sure enough, Leon couldn’t possibly see the board in class, never mind tease out the tiny letters in a book.  But optometrists don’t just give out glasses, so the team had yet another hurdle to clear — which they somehow did.

And Leon’s discipline referrals full-on stopped.

This story is only unusual because of its extremes.  Leon’s infuriating disruptiveness ended abruptly when he could finally use his eyesight.  More typical are serious behavior problems with roots in trauma, neglect, and family dysfunction.  The Herculean efforts of the RP team managed a stupidly-quick fix for Leon, but trauma cases are harder and far more tangled.  But solutions will never be found, leaving the problems to fester, unless someone puts in the effort to unpack the problem and come up with answers.

All schools need an RP team seamlessly connected to outside agencies focused on mental health, housing, physical health, juvenile justice or whatever is needed.  I suspect that in my state, Rhode Island, the bureaucracies are especially insulated from one another.  But I don’t think it’s common that teachers work closely with non-school social workers.  Kids’ lives are not divided by sectors.  Some need diverse teams.

Leon’s issue was resolved with a bit of medical help and then a way to pay for glasses.  That it was so hard to accomplish wasn’t the school’s fault.  It’s just not their job.  But enough troubled behavior can bring teaching and learning to a halt.  RP teams might have to help the whole family become healthier before the child’s behavior improves.  But schools tend to live in little worlds of their own.  Confidentiality, funding, policies and fiefdoms prevent disparate agencies from working together to restore a kid’s life.

There are no bad kids, only bad behavior.

Before the RP team went on its forensic search, Leon was essentially being punished for poor eyesight.  Similarly, traumatized kids are punished for not having a better response to their trauma.  Troubled behavior will not respond to carrot-and-stick discipline tactics.  Somehow, someone needs to stop the assembly line to give significant time and attention to some kids’ problems and more time working on solving them.

That requires time, labor, and resources.  Redeploying existing outside services to help schools would be best.  But organizing that would be a big lift — even though it would save tons of time, money and misery in the long run.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Teachers Must Be Mindful of Traumatized Children

Published by — Misbehavior may seem like a choice, like willful defiance.  But sometimes it’s a cry for help.


Today we’re in the brightly painted library of an urban elementary school.  It’s the last day of professional development before the summer officially ends.  The faculty are still in shorts and sandals.  While they sigh over how quickly the season passed, the vibe among them is jolly and warm.

Up next to help prepare this group for the new school year is a presentation called “Helping to Reach and Teach the Traumatized Child.”  Amy Simpson, Clinical Director from Family Services of RI, starts us off by having teachers build a list of the sorts of things considered traumatic — death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, medical procedures, natural disasters and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, among many others.  The list was long.  “Unfortunately long,” Simpson called it.  But in truth, it was just a list.  Perhaps we mused a bit on the tough experiences identified by the list that we’ve actually had.

But without a palpable taste of what trauma feels like, it’s just an abstraction.

Then, with sincere apologies, Simpson introduces her audience to a YouTube recording.  Listen to “Lisa 911 Call” only if you’re ready for three memorably upsetting minutes.  Or take my word for it:

A girl, presumably Lisa, sounding 7 or 8ish, has called 911 because her stepfather is beating her mother.  She’s crying so hysterically it takes a while to get the basics of the situation.  Subtitles help you understand that the man goes drinking at “the club” and this happens, according to her, “forever and ever.”  You can hear the fight in the background.  Terrified, the child barely holds it together to work with the 911 operator.

The operator is super calm and all business.  Her tone implies she’s taking a serious problem seriously, but not emotionally.  She assures Lisa that the police are on their way and that she will stay on the phone with the girl until help arrives.  Lisa is only nominally calmed by the promise of help.  The operator asks if the front door is unlocked.  “Oh, no,” cries the girl, because she doesn’t think it is.  So she just puts the phone down and runs to give the police access.  Her end of the line now has only the sounds of the fight, so for an agonizing 10 seconds my mind raced to all manner of horror, including Lisa getting caught by the her stepfather.

But she comes back, and says she unlocked the door.  But her hysteria crescendos again, because the man “knocked out” her little sister.  Finally, Lisa’s cries rise to a piercing crest because “he’s got the baby.”  She’s frantic to see what happened and puts the phone down.  The operator calls after her — “Lisa!”  The line goes dead.  The operator swears.

Oy.  We’re all shaken.  The point is, as Simpson says gently:

“It is conceivable that this child will be in your classroom the next day.”

Okay.  Point taken.  But now a whole room of adults are fairly upset.  They let Simpson know they did not appreciate that experience.  Empathetically, she honors their experience.  Without a hint of dismissing their feelings, she explains that “As adult professionals, we can re-regulate.  Kids have a far harder time.  And when they are traumatized or an old trauma is triggered, their brains go into survival mode and they stop learning.”

So the big take-away is that brain research has shown definitively that trauma shuts down the brain’s ability to learn.  The traumatized brain becomes consumed with fight-or-flight and shuts down learning.  Multiplication tables?  The life cycle of rivers?  Greek myths?  Forget it.  The kid can’t think.

So educators themselves need to become, as the presenters call it, “trauma-informed.”  They need to know it’s ubiquitous and to begin collecting techniques to avoid triggering it at a minimum.  Trauma might be as fresh as Lisa’s if she goes to school the next day.  Or it might have happened in the past, perhaps on a prolonged basis.  Either way, it can be triggered in the present time by a seemingly innocuous story, a certain gesture, a harsh tone of voice, or who knows?

Adults have their own feelings and can react in ways that escalate.

Teachers naturally expect cooperation from their students and work to discipline unruly kids.  Misbehavior may seem like a choice, and sometimes it is.  But it could well be a reaction to unmet needs resulting from trauma.  Still, a flare-up of unwanted behavior can feel defiant, insulting and disrespectful to a college-educated adult who’s trying to manage 30 kids and a lesson plan.  Still, anyone can trigger a traumatic flashback quite accidentally, and angry responses are known to make matters worse.

The school’s principal summed up the palpably painful lesson, “Getting in a student’s face is never appropriate.  But it’s especially inappropriate with traumatized kids.  You might feel attacked or the child is defiant, but in truth the child is reaching out.  It’s not about you.”

That’s hard to remember when a kid is lashing out at you.  And while trauma is better understood, classroom responses to it require time and training, both of which are in seriously short supply, especially in urban schools.  Still, knowing how to avoid triggering is a great start.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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5 Smart Ideas for Reducing the Effects of Kids’ Trauma

Published by — Kids will only care about how their behavior affects others when they feel cared for themselves.


Out there — in schools, playgrounds, pediatricians’ offices, neighborhoods and summer camps — are traumatized kids.  Some have witnessed violence in the home, suffered the death of a parent or loved one, lost their home in a fire, or been sexually abused.  Others belong to a culture that has such harsh child-rearing norms that they’re routinely abused verbally or physically.  Some have alcoholic or drug-addled parents or live in chaotic or scary homes.  Others bounced from home to home, or even country to country, for lots of reasons.

Most stupidly, some kids have been so coddled and protected from adversity that they’re crushed by events that resilient kids can overcome.

So, for various reasons, lots of the kids wriggling around in our worlds have experienced trauma.  They don’t wear signs announcing the state of their inner worlds, except when they act out with the anti-social behavior we all find maddening.  They can seem utterly normal until something triggers festering memories and feelings, driving the kid’s behavior or health kablooey.

Trauma-informed environments have five core concepts.

In last week’s column, Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, Ph.D., taught us about what trauma is.  This week she’ll help us understand how to create environments that are prepared to handle traumatized kids and to prevent triggering trauma or escalating a boil-over.

1.  First, and most importantly, assume trauma.  No matter how “nice” your school or neighborhood, assume it’s there.  Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “Think in terms of basic infection control. Use universal precautions. We assume the presence of infection, so we wash our hands.”  One trauma-informed version of hand-washing is to delete the idea that there are “bad” kids.  Instead, work together on strengthening the relationships among adults and kids in your institution.  Kids will only care about how their behavior affects others when they feel cared for themselves.

Then, Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “If trauma is disclosed, you already have a gentle environment that can work with professionals to help the healing. If it’s not disclosed, healing can happen on its own. And if there never was trauma in the first place, the child still has a gentle environment.”

Note that “gentle” is the operant concept. Nurturing, kind. She didn’t say this, but I suggest that every effort to eliminate yelling at the kids is a great place to start. As one student said to a teacher in a mediation, “Mistah, my step-father yells at me all the time and you sound just like him.  Makes me want to hit you.”  It’s hard, but we need to keep our tempers in check.  Yelling with even a hint of aggression can trigger trauma, and it certainly doesn’t model pro-social behavior.

2.  “Trauma is global.  It affects any aspect of a person’s functioning.”  The effects show up in a kid’s physical, mental, behavioral or social health.

Paccione-Dyszlewski walks us through considerable brain science, but the bottom line — especially for you school-based people — is that trauma stops a kid’s ability to learn.  They’re surviving, that’s all.  Most obviously with little kids, trauma creates developmental delays, early lags in language and cognitive function, and difficulty maintaining attention and concentration.  Emotional trauma affects all systems very much like a traumatic brain injury.

3.  “Trauma affects relationships, and dramatically.”  All kids need to learn two things:  emotional regulation (managing their feelings and behavior) and trust.  If there’s no one they trust, they brim over with unmet needs.  Only major interventions to help them forge a relationship will prevent them from announcing their emotional poverty with a lot of illness or behavior that gets negative attention.

4.  “Trauma can be treated.”  When a kid is in full-blown crisis, insurance might pay for so many outpatient visits or so much hospitalization.  But professional services can only be part of the healing network of relationships that a kid needs over time.  I wrote some months ago about inspirational Leeds, England, which is targeting City efforts and resources to helping families, schools and neighborhoods become healthy enough to manage their own conflicts and issues.  Leeds’ leadership wouldn’t exactly say they’re becoming a trauma-informed city, but I think Paccione-Dyszlewski would.  They’re investing in strong family relationships within a gentle, city-wide network of support.

5.  And lastly, “trauma-informed institutions have a caregiver focus.  Pediatricians, childcare workers, teachers — trauma affects who we are.”  Being around trauma is hard.  But institutions can become traumatizing themselves.  Administrators need to model how adults take good care of one another or they won’t be helpful to kids.

Paccione-Dyszlewski wistfully notes that elsewhere, in some countries far more trauma-ridden than ours, stronger communities work more purposely on developing what she calls “common language.”  Speaking a language of social rules and conventions helps all people, young and old, remember how to be good to one another.

Relationships are the universal precaution for trauma.  Institutions need to take note.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Trauma and the Growing Number of Hard-to-Manage Kids

Published by — Kids with a significant history of trauma get a reputation for being bad kids, which only makes things worse.


Today we’re at a training in Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Adolescents.  Hosted by Bradley Hospital, the oldest pediatric mental-health facility in the country, our teacher is Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, PhD.  The hosts know I’m there partly as a journalist and partly as a restorative practitioner working with a lot of core-urban kids who are awash with trauma.

Paccione-Dyszlewski emphasizes that “trauma is extreme stress that affects a person’s ability to cope.”  And that “the trauma of children has an impact on everyone around them.  So kids with a significant history of trauma get a reputation for being bad kids, which only makes things worse.”

Trauma-informed care is essentially a shift in philosophy that emphasizes exploring the trauma driving unwanted behavior.  There usually is trauma, after all.  It runs a wide gamut from mild to severe — from a bout of anxiety after a bad fender-bender to violent acting out as a result of prolonged sexual abuse.  The younger a person is when the trauma takes root, the harder it is to heal.

The good doctor apologizes for what she’s about to do.  Then, on a large screen flash some of the most famous of the photographs of the 911 attack on the Twin Towers.  Shoulders droop; smiles fade; people look away.  You could hear a pin drop, but the discomfort was palpable.

She allowed some aggrieved complaint from her audience, most of whom work on the exhausting front lines dealing with distressed kids.  They hadn’t anticipated a super-yucky emotional experience in what they thought would be a refreshing, intellectually-nourishing day off from stress.

The point is that everyone experiences trauma at some point. 

Paccione-Dyszlewski tells us its defining feature is the “disregulation of emotional states.”  Trauma is not itself a discrete emotion, like joy or rage, but a roller coaster of all kinds of feelings that can be triggered by just about anything, including mere photographs of the national trauma we all lived through.

Those of us in the audience bounce back from our irritations, sweaty palms and nervous stomach brought on by the 911 trigger. She says, “Because we’re relatively mature, well-regulated adults, we cope.”

She made her point.  We were upset, but we certainly had not watched Mom get beaten up by the boyfriend or our beloved older brother get shot in a drive-by.  The photos didn’t seriously challenge our ability to cope.  We don’t have an emotional water table already so full of trauma that one more drop — a perceived insult, someone yelling — is enough to make the emotions come spilling over.  Okay, then how do we help kids whose out-of-control behavior is driving everyone nuts to learn to cope in community-appropriate ways?

Let’s back up to what mentally healthy looks like. 

No one can protect kids from adversity.  Adversity lies in wait.  That’s life.  But kids who have strong relationships can be protected from its long-lasting, toxic effects.  As soon as they’re mobile, kids crawl, toddle or run into their worlds to do what their brain is designed to do:  explore and learn.  Inevitably they fall-down-go-boom, encounter hot, loud, scary, or mean.  But healthy kids bee-line back to their secure relationship.  They cry, rock, receive comfort, regroup, and are off again.  They trust that someone will respond promptly, regularly and with empathy.  Eventually they learn to soothe themselves and to regulate their own emotions.  Managing adversity without its becoming traumatic enhances learning.

Strong connections are the way humans gain mental health, but also recover it.  Brain researchers argue that the way to heal trauma starts with establishing consistent, warm, caring relationships that many kids never had in the first place.  In fact, unless a kid can develop a relationship with someone whom she values and trusts, she may never give a fig about how her wretched behavior affects others.  Helping traumatized kids care for someone is the only way to turn the Titanic of deep-rooted, anti-social behavior.

But how labor-intensive is that?  Totally.  Making relationships can take frustrating amounts of time.  It’s hard for healthy adults to make friends in a new city, never mind for a truly traumatized child to learn to trust someone.  So time will be a factor in changing these maddening kids’ behavior.

Yet, “Every time there’s an opportunity to show concern, it starts to promote the corrective experience and undo the worst of the trauma,” says Paccione-Dyszlewski.

Of course, a school, a medical practice, or any institution that works with kids usually has other important work it’s trying to get done.  Who’s got time to fuss about building strong relationships in the short school day that’s crammed with so much else?

Next week Paccione-Dyszlewski will help us see how such institutions could become “trauma-informed” and thus more effective.  She didn’t call her techniques “Restorative.”  But I would.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Is Trauma the Root Cause of Major Misbehavior?

Pulbished by — Children endure several different types of trauma, and how we respond has an effect on how students behave in the short and long term.

At a recent conference, nearly 600 attendees learned painful lessons about trauma’s effect on the young, developing brain. Dr. James Greer, psychiatrist and Clinical Professor at Brown Medical School, and his colleague Robert Hagberg, LICSW, presented their research and their experiences with effective treatment.Rhode Island’s Family Court hosted the two-day event designed to focus on improving the circumstances of the most obviously traumatized, troubled and vulnerable children, those whom the State had to remove from their homes. Conference participants came from the juvenile justice system, schools, social services and child-protective services. The point was to help everyone better understand the full plight of these kids, so agencies would collaborate more closely on taking better care of them.

Greer and Hagberg are principals in the Mind and Body Project, which treats trauma with physical techniques, including yoga. Their presentation repeatedly made the point that trauma is body based, not verbal. As therapists, they help kids use physical cues and exercises to control the effects of their own trauma. With detailed graphs and pictures, the therapist/researchers taught the audience how trauma wires itself into the brain’s architecture and becomes part of a kid’s automatic functioning.

One of their stories was about a kid I’ll call Raffi. For years his impulsive behavior has gotten him in trouble at school. Using a physical technique, he digs his fingers into his legs as he walks down the halls of his high school to concentrate on getting to English class.

But in the crowded hallway, some clod bumps him accidentally and wham, Raffi throws a punch. When administrators confront him about his actions, he honestly doesn’t remember what happened. At least he has no words for it. Trauma doesn’t think in words; it just reacts. So Raffi’s not just in trouble, but big trouble. Again.

The fact that this kid has trauma, “in no way excuses the behavior,” Greer says emphatically. “If they cannot control their behavior, they can’t live in the world with rest of us.” What they need are “corrective experiences,” which is to say reassuring, healthy interactions with caring adults who can, over time, help the kid trust that he can take a moment to think before reacting.

Greer explains, “Experience in childhood organizes the developing brain. Experience in adulthood alters the organized brain. And corrective experience does not happen in the office. It happens in home and at school.”

To me, the therapists’ “corrective experiences” translate as teaching or re-teaching. No one breaks a bad habit without learning and practicing a healthy habit that can take its place. So when it comes to social norms and handling emotions, traumatized kids need remedial education. Greer and Hagberg concede that this corrective or re-teaching work can be painstaking.

But if patient re-teaching works with traumatized kids, why wouldn’t it help all misbehaving kids learn new social habits?

As the presenters spoke, the typical behavior of their traumatized kids seemed for all the world like the obnoxious behavior we generally associate with any mouthy, uncooperative trouble-maker. So, of all youthful miscreants, what proportion is traumatized? And if not trauma, what are the other sources of the insulting, aggressive and uncontrollable behavior that has been flooding schools in recent years? Are there any?

Greer and Hagberg describe the three ways a kid’s brain becomes mis-wired and thus anti-social:

First is the obvious trauma of exposure to danger or harm. This would include natural disasters, accidental disasters like car accidents, or intentional harm like being beaten. Also, the threat of such harm is itself traumatizing. Hagberg says, “A sense of threat does more neurological damage than actual physical danger.” Gunshot-ridden neighborhoods are naturally threatening and thus traumatizing.

Second is the vicarious exposure to threat or harm. Increasing numbers of kids are growing up with parents who themselves have some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They’ve survived war or the sorts of danger mentioned above. Kids pick up on the chaos in the parents’ inner world and become “disregulated” or chaotic themselves.

Lastly, and in some ways least obvious, is what Greer and Hagberg call “enduring neglect, which produces developmental trauma.” When Mom or the primary caregiver doesn’t respond appropriately or regularly, the child gets screwy messages about how to get her needs met. In our epidemic of disintegrating families, children often suffer an “absence of appropriate care.” Teen moms, for example, are often too immature to establish nurturing structures and routines.

But wait! That describes the whole range of kids who regularly misbehave. Even some middle-class kids are growing up with parents who want to be friends instead of setting limits and rules. Kids need, as Hagberg says, “structure, structure, structure.” But, he notes, “‘discipline’ can be a loaded word. Kids need structure and routine in appropriately developmental ways.”

The traditional approach to discipline, just punishing the kid, removes the unwanted behavior more quickly than providing corrective experiences. But punishment just reinforces the negative neuropathways already etched by traumatic experience. So misunderstanding and reacting badly to kids’ maddening behavior is likely just making it worse.

Hagberg and Greer made a compelling argument that everyone across all child-serving sectors needs to understand and to be responsible for re-teaching trauma-driven misbehavior.

Otherwise, I’m thinking, welfare rolls and prison populations will continue to soar.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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